What Messages Are We Sending Our Students Revisited

Level Z Reader_1

Almost two years ago, when this blog was quite new, I wrote a post about the dangers of students seeing themselves as reading level letters because of all the emphasis placed on levels. I felt compelled to write that post after noticing the artwork of several second graders who claimed that their dearest wish for the year was to achieve a certain reading level. And I’m returning to the same question now because of two things that happened last week: the news that Alice Munro, the great Canadian writer, had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and a conversation I had with my valued colleague Anna Commitante, which led me to take a second look at a packaged 9th grade ELA unit that uses Karen Russell‘s wonderful short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

The Beggar MaidI was thrilled to hear the Nobel Prize news because I’ve been reading—and adoring—Alice Munro for over thirty years. I’m not sure how I first discovered her way back in my twenties, but I remember clearly the first piece of hers I read, a short story called “Royal Beatings,” from the collection The Beggar Maid. It’s about a young girl named Rose living in rural Ontario in what I took to be the 1940’s, who’s subject to periodic beatings by her father when her step-mother Flo thinks she’s being uppity.

My life was nothing at all like Rose’s, but reading the story I felt a bolt of recognition that I’d never experienced before and a sense of exposure that was both terrifying and deeply reassuring. She put into words all the complicated, ricochetting swings of mood and feelings I often felt—and rather than judging or downplaying them, she celebrated each twinge and stirring. And in doing so she gave me what the writer Maureen McLane says certain poems and stories can provide: “deep seas in which to swim and make a self.”

Here, for instance, she describes the almost exquisite sense of having been wronged, which Rose feels after a beating:

Never is a word to which the right is suddenly established. She will never speak to them, she will never look at them with anything but loathing, she will never forgive them. She will punish them, she will finish them. Encased in these finalities, and in her bodily pain, she floats in curious comfort, beyond herself, beyond responsibility.

And here she describes the moment when that sense of power collapses as, feeling contrite, Flo leaves a tray of food outside Rose’s door:

She will turn away, refuse to look, but left alone with these eatables will be miserably tempted . . . she will reach out a finger, just to run it around the edge of one of the sandwiches (crusts cut off!) to get the overflow, a taste. Then she will decide to eat one, for strength to refuse the rest. One will not be noticed. Soon, in helpless corruption, she will eat them all. She will drink the chocolate milk, eat the tarts, eat the cookies. She will get the malty syrup out of the bottom of the glass with her finger, though she sniffles with shame. Too late.

To me, this story was a revelation. And I’m so very glad that the Nobel Prize news prompted me to relive that first encounter and reread the story, which was in my mind a few days later when I talked with Anna.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by WolvesWe were commiserating about the sorry state we were in, here in New York City, where everything seemed to be conspiring to not allow students to have the kind of reading experience I just described. And at some point she asked me if I’d ever read Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” or seen the New York State 9th grade unit on it. I’d read and loved Russell’s story (from the collection of the same name) and had come across the unit at some point, when I looked at it just long enough to note the great choice of text. But Anna said I had to read it because, she said with exasperation and heartache, “They got it all wrong.”

The story itself is wonderfully strange: A group of girls whose parents are werewolves have been sent to the St. Lucy’s Home at the urging of the Home’s nuns in order to become, in the story’s words, “naturalized citizens of human society.” Not all goes well, however, especially for one of the youngest girls who not only can’t but doesn’t seem to want to give up all her wild ways, despite the fact that it may leave her stranded between the worlds of humans and wolves.

Given how adolescents often straddle two worlds, I imagined there might be some 9th graders out there who’d find in the story a “deep sea in which to swim and make a self.” But when I took another look at the unit, I realized there was no room for that. Clocking in at 211 pages, the unit plan was ten times longer than the story itself, comprising 17 lessons with 130 text-dependent questions, almost 40 vocabulary words and lots of formative and summative assessments.

When we all think alike no one thinks very muchThat, in and of itself, seemed bad enough, but when I looked closer at the questions I understood what Anna had meant. Most seemed aimed at checking students’ basic comprehension and ability to cite evidence from the text, while others focused on vocabulary. But there were some like “Why is St. Lucy’s culture better?” that made me realize that what Anna and I took to be a story about conformity and indoctrination had been seen by the unit writers as a story about the need to assimilate. And the questions and prompts pushed students toward that—just as the nuns were pushing the girls to adhere to “civilized” norms.

A story this rich will inevitably spark multiple interpretations. But it’s hard for me to imagine that a writer who, in her own words, “mashes” genres together with such abandon and glee, would want readers to think that the central idea was “that girls who were raised by wolves must assimilate or adapt to human culture,” as the unit claims. But then again I’m not really sure the unit wants readers to think. The message it seems to be sending out is that it’s more important to cite evidence to support someone else’s idea (as folded into a question) than to construct an original idea in the first place, and that we read to practice skills and meet the standards, not to make a self.

Of course, I think it’s possible to meet the standards within the context of non-standardized reading and thinking. But we need to be mindful of both the direct and indirect messages we’re sending. And we might begin that by considering these words about stories from Alice Munro:

“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished.”

Alice Munro

The Reader and the Task: More Questions about Packaged Programs

One Size Does Mot Fit All

Last month I bemoaned New York City’s decision to encourage schools to adopt highly scripted reading programs in the lower and middle school grades in order to meet the Standards. And in addition to the various reasons I cited then—texts that seem inappropriate for students’ grade level, questions and prompts that seem too much like test-prep—there’s another reason I’m wary. Potential problems are bound to arise anytime we ask a group of diverse readers to all read the same text, and every program the City is recommending requires students to read common texts that often seem beyond even the high end of a given grade’s complexity band.

The question then is how do we help so-called struggling readers, whether they’re English language learners, children with special needs, or just students who, for a whole host of reasons, may not be where someone thinks they should be. The programs’ answer to this question seems to be that teachers should just keep guiding and prompting until the students somehow get it, falling back when needed on think alouds which, in the guise of modeling how to think, too often tell students what to think.

funny-in-farsiTo get a feel for the level of prompting, let’s look at a sample from one of the programs recommended for middle school students, Scholastic’s Codex, which is being adapted from their Read 180 program. One of the whole class texts for their 6th grade unit on “Coming to America” is a chapter from Firoozeh Dumas‘s memoir Funny in FarsiLike the 3rd grade text I shared last month from Pearson’s ReadyGenFunny in Farsi is an interesting text that’s actually intended for an older audience. School Library Journal lists it as being for high school students and adults, but someone, in their obsession with complexity, has now decided to make it 6th grade fare.

What makes the book challenging is its tone, which can veer toward irony and sarcasm, and the background knowledge needed to get the humor, as can be seen below:

Funny in Farsi Excerpt

In recognition of these challenges, the Read 180 Teacher’s Packet provides teachers not only with the by now expected string of text-dependent questions but a script to use with small groups of students who might need more support. Here, for instance, is what they tell teachers to say in order to help students answer two questions on the third paragraph above:

Read Aloud Teacher Packet

I know these supports are meant to be scaffolds, but at some point all this guiding, assisting and ensuring that students get what the script says they should can inevitably lead teachers facing blank stares to just tell them what they ‘ought’ to know. And where’s the critical thinking in that? Where’s the independence? And how does this level of scaffolding jive with how forcefully David Coleman, the chief architect of the Standards, has come down on practices that allow students to access the text without actually reading it?

Male Sunbird feeding his newborn chicks in nestOf course, students are supposed to be reading along silently as the teacher reads the passage out loud. And with struggling students, the teacher is encouraged to use an oral cloze routine, whereby students call out words the teacher doesn’t read aloud to see if they’re following. But all this scaffolding sounds suspiciously like spoon-feeding to me, with teachers overly directing students to a pre-ordained answer. It will, however, increase students’ ability to address the writing task for this text, where they’re given two choices: They can either write an “explanatory paragraph” explaining how people were kind or welcoming to the author’s family or an “opinion paragraph,” in which they state whether they think the author’s response to some of the Americans’ misguided ideas was clever or mean.

At this point pretty much all they have to do is plug in the details from the answers to the questions they’ve been guided, assisted and helped in finding. There’s really no synthesis required here, no need to consider the author’s message or theme, which might entail wrestling with the seeming contradiction between the author’s affection for Americans and her annoyance with their ignorance. Digging deeper isn’t on the agenda, though that’s precisely the kind of thinking college students have to do with none of the scaffolding, prompting and sentence starters that they’re given here. And all of this brings up an additional problem.

Like the New York State ELA exam, this Scholastic example seems based on an incredibly narrow interpretation of the Standards, where more emphasis is placed on the skill of citing textual evidence to support an idea expressed in a prompt than on developing an idea about the text in the first place. Additionally the questions are either straightforward comprehension questions (like Q1 above), which don’t ask for higher order thinking, or they focus on small matters of craft (like Q2) that have been divorced from the greater meaning of the piece or the unit’s theme.

One Green AppleWhat makes more sense to me—and addresses both these problems—is letting struggling students engage with the unit’s theme through a text that’s easier to access, like Eve Bunting‘s wonderful One Green AppleThe book tells the story of an immigrant girl from Pakistan named Farah, who’s struggling to find a place for herself in a new and not always welcoming country—and with a Lexile level of 450, it puts far fewer word and sentence demands on a reader than Funny in Farsi does. But it conveys its ideas about the unit’s theme in subtle and complex ways, with the green apple acting as a symbol for the main character’s journey from isolation to belonging, and with many details exploring the ways in which people are different and the same.

If we invite students to simply wonder, rather than march them through a series of questions, they’re inevitably curious about the apple from the title and the cover. And because they’re curious, they pay close attention to the page where the green apple finally appears, with many students able to infer why she chose that particular one by making the connection between Farah and the apple.

Inviting students to also notice patterns helps put those other details about differences on their radar in a way that positions them to also pay attention when the focus shifts from what’s different to what’s similar. And all this noticing opens the door for students to consider what Eve Bunting might be trying to show them about coming to America through the story of Farah—or in the language of the 6th grade reading standards “to determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details.”

Home of the BraveI like to call this the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which invites students to engage in complex thinking with a text that’s relatively accessible. If we felt compelled to, we could afterwards step students up to a text like Funny in Farsi, where, with One Green Apple under their belt, they’d be better positioned to compare Firoozeh’s experience to Farah’s. Or better yet, we could take a smaller step with something like the first half-dozen poems from Katherine Applegate‘s marvelous Home of the Bravewhich, at a fourth grade reading level and without picture supports, tells the story of an African refugee transplanted to Minnesota in beautiful and complex ways.

This would mean, though, putting meaning ahead of skills and students ahead of complexity bands. It would also mean putting teachers ahead of programs, which is where the decision-making belongs for all the obvious reasons.

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